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Recorded phone calls, hidden camera footage featured in trial of Householder and Borges

Potter Stewart United States Courthouse in Cincinnati
Andy Chow
Statehouse News Bureau
Potter Stewart United States Courthouse in Cincinnati

Footage from a hidden camera and audio from recorded phone conversations were played in the federal courtroom on Monday during the trial of Larry Householder and Matt Borges.

Householder, former Ohio House speaker, and Borges, former Ohio Republican Party Chair, are accused of playing a role in a bribery scheme where millions of dollars flowed from FirstEnergy to Householder in exchange for a $1 billion nuclear power plant bailout.

Borges worked for FirstEnergy as the company fought against a referendum attempt to repeal that bailout in 2019.

During the trial, prosecutors showed as evidence a check for $15,000 that Borges wrote to Tyler Fehrman, a consultant working for the referendum campaign.

Emily Glatfelter, assistant U.S. prosecutor, has said Borges wrote that check in exchange for information FirstEnergy could use to thwart the repeal effort.

Borges’ attorneys said that check was an upfront payment for unrelated work after the referendum campaign.

Blane Wetzel, FBI special agent, was on the stand as a witness for the prosecution to describe the evidence he obtained in his investigation.

Along with the check for $15,000, Wetzel unveiled recorded phone conversations and in-person meetings that Fehrman had with Borges in September and October of 2019.

Recorded phone calls and hidden cameras

Wetzel said Fehrman approached the FBI on September 4, 2019 after a conversation Fehrman had with Borges. Wetzel then met Fehrman the next day at a Graeter’s Ice Cream, where Wetzel described Fehrman as acting “upset” and “agitated about the situation he had recently been put in.”

A text from Borges to Fehrman said, “Just keep me posted, as a friend, on how you guys are doing. That’s really all I need to know. Thanks.”

Borges went on to say, in a text admitted as evidence in court, “And — no matter what — don’t ever tell anyone about our conversation from earlier. Thanks.”

The prosecution then played a phone conversation where Borges told Fehrman that he’s not asking him to “sabotage” or “spy” on the referendum attempt but instead “these are things friends would discuss.”

Borges and Fehrman meeting

The FBI recorded a meeting between Fehrman and Borges on September 10, 2019 at a central Ohio Starbucks using hidden cameras and an audio recording device.

During the meeting, Borges and Fehrman discuss the possibility of a buyout and the hurdles Fehrman might face because of clauses in his employment agreement.

Then Borges offers to give Fehrman $15,000 as a private transaction. Fehrman asked Borges what kind of information he would need from the referendum campaign.

Borges said he would like to know the location of the signature gatherers who were trying to collect signatures for the petition to put the referendum on the November ballot. Borges said his top priority for Fehrman was to find out and tell him the total number of signatures that had been gathered on a routine basis.

Borges suggested during the meeting that Fehrman call him in the morning “say a number and hang up.”

Borges leaned on Yost to influence referendum

The prosecution also focused on the interactions Borges had with Attorney General Dave Yost (R-Ohio). Borges once ran Yost’s statewide campaign and has been considered a close political advisor.

Glatfelter pointed out notable dates in the attempt to repeal House Bill 6, the nuclear power plant bailout.

That included an 11-minute conversation Householder had with Yost the day Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts submitted their proposed referendum language.

Phone records also showed a seven-minute conversation between Borges and Yost on August 28, 2019, one day before Yost approved the ballot language. Yost had rejected the first draft of that language on August 12, 2019.

Juan Cespedes, former FirstEnergy lobbyist, checked-in with Borges several times to see how conversations were going with Yost. FirstEnergy’s strategy was to argue the subsidies created through HB 6 should be considered a tax and therefore could not be subject to a referendum.

During one text thread, Cespedes asked Borges to meet with Yost. Borges responded, “I talked to him we should discuss what we want him to do.”

Other texts described Yost being frustrated and upset with the tactics of FirstEnergy’s anti-referendum team. The anti-referendum campaign sent “educators” out into the field to follow signature gatherers. News stories started to circulate about signature gatherers being harassed and stalked.

As the referendum campaign was still gathering signatures, Borges and Cespedes also talk about Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R-Ohio). Borges said he had a “very good conversation” with LaRose and “made sure he understood how important this is to the company. And to me personally.”

After the referendum attempt failed. Borges and Cespedes discuss a potential meeting they can set up between LaRose and FirstEnergy executives.

When asked to respond to the text message conversations that were revealed during the trial, Rob Nichols, LaRose's spokesperson said, "This is a lobbyist bragging to his HB6 clients about influence he never had, and the secretary didn’t do anything he wanted.”

Yost’s communications director, said Yost was “subpoenaed to potentially be a witness in this case. At this time, it is inappropriate for him to comment.”

Neither Yost nor LaRose have been accused of any wrongdoing.

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